Nintendo's 3DS

The terms you agree to in order to enjoy stereo 3D in movie theaters are pretty well settled — you pay more money for your ticket, you sit in the dark and put on those goofy glasses, and you enjoy the show as part of a captive audience. But in a home environment, consumers aren’t quite so happy. If it’s just you, a leather chair, and a 60-inch screen playing a 3D Blu-ray of Avatar, it’s all good. You slip on the glasses and escape to Pandora for a couple of hours. But what if you’re multitasking, with a MacBook in your lap while the movie’s going? What about that Super Bowl party — how many extra pairs of stereo specs do you need to buy, and will people really want to wear those enormous glasses all night long just to make out what’s on screen? And what if you actually want to see and talk to your family?

The holy grail for consumer-grade 3D TV is glasses-free technology, and if you’ve been to any trade shows in the last few years, you’ve certainly had the opportunity to check out one or more autostereoscopic display technologies. Some of them look great — if you’re standing or sitting in a “sweet spot” where the screen can deliver divergent views to your left and right eyes. If you’re not in the sweet spot, you’re not getting 3D, and this problem may be unsolvable with current technology.

As an example of the state of the art in glasses-free 3D TV, consider the prototype 55-incher just demo’d by Samsung. The company’s best, forward-looking screen technology currently supports nine different viewing angles, which is great for autostereoscopic displays. It’s not so great for your living room. Imagine organizing a viewing party where everybody’s head has to be aligned along one of nine imaginary lines radiating out from your TV in order to get the 3D effect and glasses start to seem like much less of a hassle!

In a statement given to the tech blog today, Samsung dialed down expectations for the technology dramatically, suggesting that 3D needs to be viewable from no fewer than 32 positions in a room in order to make the technology viable. I have no idea why 32 is the magic number, but Samsung puts it another way, too: “Attempts to put glasses-free 3D TV to market within the next 10 years will be difficult.”

Ouch. Assuming 3D glasses don’t gain much more traction in the market, is consumer-grade 3D DOA? Well, not exactly. Look what else Samsung has been up to lately — yesterday, Hollywood-based MasterImage 3D announced that Samsung Ventures had made a $15 million investment in the company, which is developing autostereoscopic displays for smartphones and tablets.

Nintendo 3D gameAre those products ready for prime time? You bet. Releasing next week is the Nintendo 3DS, the gaming giant’s latest portable game system, which boasts a no-glasses-required 3D screen (thought to be provided by Sharp). Reviews of the first 3D-enabled games are underwhelming, though everyone seems impressed by the quality of the 3D. That’s because Nintendo knows approximately where your eyes are going to be when you’re playing handheld games, and can design a screen that delivers decent depth to that sweet spot — and nowhere else. (In a slick move, Nintendo has even included a slider that lets you dial the depth effects up or down, depending on your comfort level in a given game.) And a partnership between Nintendo and NetFlix means you may even be able to watch 3D movies on the 3DS in the not-distant future.

The same principal should apply to smartphones and tablets, too, with autostereoscopic phones scheduled to go on sale (from companies including LG and HTC) this year. So if you want to get a glimpse of the future of consumer 3D entertainment, next week’s Nintendo 3DS might be a good opportunity to see what it will look like. If the 3DS is a hit for Nintendo, expect the units to be in short supply this year — and that shortage would only boost hype for autostereoscopic displays as a whole. On the other hand, if 3DS systems are plentiful through the spring and heading into summer, well, maybe consumer interest just isn’t that high.